Edmund de Waal on Pottery, Poetry, and the Act of Letting Go
The London-based artist, master potter, and author Edmund de Waal has an astoundingly astute sense for the inner lives of objects. Each of his works, whether in clay or stone, is imbued with a certain alchemy, embodying traces of far-away or long-ago ancestors, ideas, and histories. Brought up in a medieval home in Lincoln, England, as the son of a chaplain and a history lecturer, de Waal developed, from a young age, a profound reverence for sacred spaces and objects and the stories they tell. At 12, during his time studying at King’s School in Canterbury, he found a mentor in the ceramicist Geoffrey Whiting, and through him, a calling in the craft of pottery. After a trip to Bizen, Japan, at age 17, to study certain Japanese techniques under the potter Kaneshige Michiaki, de Waal returned to England and completed a two-year apprenticeship with Whiting. “It was many, many, many hours sitting next to him, him on his wheel, me on mine,” he says on this episode of Time Sensitive.
In the decades (and tens of thousands of pots) since, de Waal has become a master internationally renowned for his work, which largely centers around the theme of memory. His creations often delve into notions around the archive and the library, pulling together various strands of history to potent effect. This fall, two exhibitions featuring his art are on view at Gagosian in New York (through October 28): “to light, and then return,” which pairs his pieces with tintypes and platinum prints by Sally Mann, and “this must be the place,” a solo presentation displaying his porcelain vessels poetically arranged in vitrines, as well as stone benches carved from marble. As respected for his writing as he is for his pots, de Waal is the author of 20th Century Ceramics (2003), The Pot Book (2011), The White Road (2015), Letters to Camondo (2021), and, perhaps most notably, the New York Times bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which chronicles his family history through a collection of 264 ivory and lacquer Japanese netsuke originally collected by de Waal’s great-great-uncle, Charles Ephrussi. All that de Waal does is part of one long continuum: He views his pots and texts as a single, rigorously sculpted body of work and ongoing conversation across time.
On this episode, de Waal talks about his infatuation with Japan, his affinity for the life and work of the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), and the roles of rhythm and breath in his work.
Spencer reads a translation of the poet Paul Celan’s “Etched Away,” and de Waal discusses the significance and influence of the poem and Celan’s work.
De Waal talks about what it means to win the 2023 Isamu Noguchi Award and contemplates the many links between Noguchi’s work and his own. He also speaks about his two Gagosian exhibitions in New York, as well as an upcoming show he curated on the work of the Danish ceramicist Axel Salto (1889-1961).
De Waal looks back at his childhood in Nottingham and Lincoln, England, during which he grew up in and around cathedrals, and his time studying with the potter Geoffrey Whiting.
De Waal recalls how, with encouragement from the teamaster Dr. Sen no Sōshitsu, he found his way to Japan, and details his ongoing immersion into the country, and its pottery and its culture, ever since.
De Waal considers the time he spent researching and writing his bestselling book The Hare with Amber Eyes, and the interconnections between that book and two of his others, The White Road and Letters to Camondo.
De Waal talks about the roles of breathing and rhythm in his work, and finishes on the emotional complexities inherent in letting go of things, physical or not.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Edmund. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
EDMUND DE WAAL: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a long time in the planning. Very happy to be here.
SB: I thought we’d start our conversation today with a short poem by Paul Celan, an excerpt from “Etched Away”: “Deep in Time’s crevasse/by the alveolate ice/waits, a crystal of breath/your irreversible/witness.” How do you think about these lines—I know that you’re familiar with them—within the context of your own work, but also just from the perspective of time?
EDW: Well, I don’t think you could ask me a harder question.
EDW: I say that completely truthfully, actually, Spencer, because, as soon as you speak those lines, there’s a word, crevasse, in that fragment of the poem, and I fall into Paul Celan’s language and his life, and the way he used language. And I see that poem on the page, the jaggedness of this poem, these black words separating themselves on the white page. And immediately I’m lost, actually. So how does it make me feel? What do I think about it? How does it relate to me? Well, how long have we got?
EDW: Celan has been in my life for a very, very long time. I’m incredibly old, and it’s been forty years of reading him. His poetry has accreted significance and aggregated power for me over the years, but I’m always taken aback and surprised by how shocking his poetry is because he detonates language. He takes a word—this is particularly true, of course, in the German in which he writes—and he fractures it. He breaks it down into syllables, into component parts and brings them back together again like a scientist colliding words in an experiment.
And so, his language is full of fissures breaking apart, and also collisions. And of course, on so many levels that…. I can go on for hours. How unfair is this to land me with Celan in the first minute of being here, sitting next to you? [Laughter] Where do you want to go? Where do you want to go with this? I love that poem. I love him.
SB: This poem, to me, also has to do with a sense of deep time. You’re talking about crevasses and fissures and collisions. How do you think about the perspective of time when it comes to those lines?
EDW: Well, there are a couple of very powerful things in that about time. One is, of course, that Celan takes language back to its root. So what he does is to think almost of the foundations of language. Language as a cry, as a sound. The word as a glyph, as a mark on cave wall, or a finger in the sand marking out a shape, or into clay—the inscription into clay. This is language as sound, language as mark-making.
So that takes you into deep time. It takes you into how you begin to make poetry, how you begin to make song, how you begin to witness memory. All of that stuff is profoundly meaningful for me, powerful for me, because Celan takes you to the word as an object, to the beginning of a word as an object. And, that’s my beginning, probably my end as well. [Laughs] Time? Yes, absolutely, time, deep time in this poem.
SB: This interview’s coming during an exciting and busy time for you. In the coming days, you’re going to receive the 2023 Isamu Noguchi Award and open two exhibitions at Gagosian gallery here in New York: “this must be the place” and “to light, and then return.” Let’s start with the Noguchi Award.
EDW: Yes, let’s start there.
SB: As I was researching for this interview, I came to learn some special—profound, even—connections between your life and work and Noguchi’s. I want you to elaborate on this, but just to name a few, first and foremost, there’s the fact that when you were 17, you studied Japanese pottery in Bizen, Japan, a region where Noguchi made pottery in the 1950s. Then there’s also the phrase “high unseriousness,“ a phrase that was once used by the art critic Hilton Kramer to damn Noguchi’s ceramic experiments, and that, in your book 20th Century Ceramics, you reclaim, holding it up high, like a trophy.
EDW: Yes. Yes.
SB: Noguchi is also included in your 2011 book, The Pot Book, an anthology of vessels of all periods. And in 2016, with Ai Weiwei, you co-curated an exhibition at the National Gallery of Prague titled “Kneaded Knowledge: The Language of Ceramics,” which included work by Noguchi. I could keep going. [Laughter] I guess I would also mention that earlier this year when you were traveling in India, you made a pilgrimage to the Jantar Mantar—
EDW: Of course.
SB: —which I am obsessed with, that place, these architectural-scale astronomical instruments in Delhi and Jaipur that Noguchi once photographed. Tell me about this deep connection with Noguchi, as you see it.
EDW: To begin at the beginning, there are so many points of reference in my life of, I don’t know, of renewal and sustenance from his life and his practice. So at 17, I end up in Bizen working with an elderly potter called Kaneshige Michiaki, who, for the month or so I’m there, I sit next to his wheel. His wheel is turned. I help fire the kiln to get grit out of clay. I’m allowed to make one pot in the month. It’s very Japanese. And of course, that’s the same place that his father, Kaneshige Tōyō, worked with Noguchi in the fifties. So there’s a direct meeting there, of connection. Kaneshige Jr., who was already about 70, talked about Noguchi, talked about this extraordinary person who had come in and mucked around in Bizen, had made odd objects there, and they’d been fired. There was a sense of pride and incomprehension about this great artist having worked in their household, in those kilns.
Years later, years and years later, I realized that there’s no book existing which will help me work out where I am in the world in terms of—I want to make installations, I want to work with architecture, I want to do all these kinds of things, and there’s no book on ceramics that charts this fissile history. So I think, Oh, bugger it, I’m going to have to actually write this book. So I spend a couple of years and write a book called 20th Century Ceramics. And in that time I write—the central section of that book is about [Lucio] Fontana and about Noguchi, and it’s about these artists who return to clay. Brilliantly, Fontana goes to Sèvres, he mucks around and tears things and blows up the kilns of Sèvres by making these powerfully transgressive figures.
And what does Noguchi do? After the war, he goes to Japan and he goes to Kamakura. He builds an extraordinary studio by covering his studio with local clay. You have to imagine this great percussive sound of him slapping wet clay onto the walls of his studio, carving out a niche for a Haniwa, for an ancient clay figure. And what is he doing there? He’s returning to his Japanese-ness, to rediscover how he can understand identity through clay. He makes these beautiful, extraordinary—I think they’re iconic—series of works, working with some of the great ceramic artists of the day, shows them back in America, and the critics hate it. They absolutely despise it. They can’t work out what’s going on. “High unseriousness,” as you say, quoting Kramer. And I think it’s one of the great moments. It shows the utter lack of understanding with the art establishment about what can happen with clay.
Of course, “high unseriousness” is like a script for Noguchi’s life. He’s one of the few great artists who understands play. Just think about those playgrounds; think about how he allows people to move through sculpture, how he invites play through touch, how he brings materials together with abandonment. So for me, he’s been massively, massively significant. Is that enough? I could go on. How long have we got? [Laughter] Number two.
SB: Well, that was incredible. It immediately got me thinking about the end of his life, the 1986 Venice Biennale and how he put a slide in front of the U.S. Pavilion, a middle finger—or a thumb—at the art establishment, and filled the pavilion with his Akari light sculptures, saying, “This is art.“
EDW: At the heart of that is…. You talked about deep time. You got me off on Celan straight away. But of course, what craft does, and this is why Noguchi has such a material intelligence, is that he completely understands that craft is always a dialogue between continuity and radical change, but that unless you’ve actually got the disciplines in place—the disciplines to make Akari lamps: incredible, extraordinary thinking; the disciplines to fire a wood kiln in Tamba or Bizen, to understand how flame works—you can’t actually make these beautiful, playful, transgressive objects. So he’s very, very good on craft, on understanding what craft really means.
SB: Let’s go to your exhibition “this must be the place.” You have some poetic allusions to work by John Milton, Wallace Stevens, and Emily Dickinson in this show. Could you speak to these works and to your approach more generally of bridging pottery and poetry?
EDW: I’m not sure if I’m bridging anything really, Spencer. [Laughs] The older I get, I have less and less of an idea about what I’m doing, genuinely. If you come into the exhibition, you’ll see works which are within vitrines, held within aluminum and glass vitrines on the walls. And these works have porcelain in them. They have porcelain bowls or porcelain vessels. Some are white; some are black. And in these vitrines, you’ll also see fragments of text written into black clay, black porcelain, or into white porcelain, shards of text. Pretty illegible, but they’re there. And you’ll see, for the first time ever, also, pieces of silver. I don’t know when you were in the studio, were there works still there? I can’t remember.
EDW: Yeah, yeah, they were still up in the studio before they got shipped.
So you’ll see these glimpses of silver—torn silver, beaten silver—which I’ve been working on. And so, what you’ve got is a material dialogue between different kinds of things going on. The energy of these pieces is, for me, it’s about the overheard, the remembered, the witnessing, to use a Celan word, of particular people. They’re a series of elegies, they’re a series for people or places that matter to me. They are almost like John Cage scores. They’re a bit like objects that are put out, which are for activating memory or feeling, more than pots on shelves.
SB: Also in the exhibition, you’ve made these new stone benches—
SB: —which I got to see in your studio when I visited in May. They’re carved out of Kilkenny marble. Tell me about your approach to working with stone as opposed to clay—and I think most people know you for working with clay. This may come as a surprise to some.
EDW: Yes, I hope it all comes as a real surprise. I’ve only done it before…. I worked with stone while making a series of benches for the courtyard of the Musée Nissim de Camondo, this family house in Paris, where I had an exhibition a couple of years ago. It’s a house of my Jewish Parisian family who were murdered in the Shoah in Auschwitz. But the house remains intact.
And so, I wanted to make a series of memorial benches, but not in a kind of heavy way, as a place for people to sit. We could talk about memorial for a long time…. I worked with a wonderful stone carver called Corin Johnson, and I made my kits out of clay, and then we worked together on how to make these very sensuous solid benches out of stone. And then, I realized I needed to do another thing. And so, for here, for New York, for “this must be the place,” incredibly heavy Kilkenny marble, black with these wonderful white, almost Cy Twombly marks, scribbly marks of fossils embedded in them. And then what I’ve done is I’ve cut deeply into the surface of the marble, and then beaten the silver out, written, scribed on it, effaced it, erased it, and then pressed these pieces of silver deep into the stone.
It’s that thing that you find in every culture, where someone has written a prayer or a letter—something has happened. It’s [an] intercession, really, and they put it into a wall, they put it into a shrine, they put it into a pavement. They let it go. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, extraordinarily, but so many other places in the world. And so, this is my “this must be the place,” these benches are called. This is me just saying, “Just stop. Pause here. Just sit here. Something’s happened.”
SB: Your other Gagosian exhibition, “to the light, and then return,” pairs your work in conversation with tintypes and platinum prints by Sally Mann.
EDW: Yes. Such a complete joy, this.
SB: How did this particular show come about? I understand Cy Twombly, actually, is who introduced you to Sally in 2010 after he gave her a copy of your book The Hare with Amber Eyes.
EDW: I blush. I mean, that’s a pretty cool introduction, I have to say. [Laughter] I’m not blasé about that. He had my book. I gave him my book. He gave my book to Sally. He had some of my pots, he gave me some books back. It was really nice. I knew Sally’s work, but we kind of began to write to each other. I wrote an essay on her extraordinary photographs that she did of Cy Twombly’s studio in Lexington, Virginia after he died. We did a conversation together at The Frick a few years ago when I had a show there.
And Sally, there are very few artists in the world like her. She’s someone I revere as an artist. She is a fiercely exploratory artist in terms of place and identity and memorial. She’s also one of the greatest writers of nonfiction. And so, to be in conversation with her is extraordinary and we sat on a podium at The Frick with all these people in front of us. And the people just disappeared. We were just in this conversation, and halfway through, we made up our minds that we were going to do a show. We said, “Oh, screw this. We have to do an exhibition together.” So that was the pact.
And then, over lockdown, she sent me some extraordinary images, I sent her a few pots, and we worked out that this was the show we needed to do. And it’s called “to light, and then return,” which is a beautiful fragment from Emily Dickinson. And for six weeks, our works are going to be near each other in a very beautiful gallery uptown. And, you know what? I went down to see her in Virginia, in the fall, and walked and walked and walked with her talking about place and poetry and family and age and proper stuff. And I thought, What an incredible privilege it is to have her as an interlocutor, to have someone asking me such fierce questions about myself. So, it’s a great joy. It’s a great joy.
SB: And how did you meet Cy originally?
EDW: I never met Cy.
EDW: No, it was a literary friendship.
SB: He liked your book.
EDW: He liked my book. He liked my pots enough to send me a beautiful series of books back with “Dear Edmund, thank you” scribbled across a whole series of books, which is an installation in itself.
SB: Well, it makes sense to me looking at your work and his. There does seem to be an affinity in terms of the work, an interest in language and in ephemerality, I think.
EDW: He’s a great rememberer of poetry, and rewriter. He’s a great palimpsest-maker, tearer-up of things and repositioning of them. I once stayed in his house in Gaeta, years after he died, and woke up at dawn and saw the whiteness of the sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and suddenly understood, like an epiphany, about the place of white within his work. This wonderful white erasure that he does in his work, seeing the whiteness of the Mediterranean at dawn.
I suddenly understood his sculpture. This idea of taking the detritus of the world and using household white paint to cover it and make classical sculpture out of the crap that’s left behind, and then scribbling something on it. So it’s an antiheroic kind of sculpture. And all that stuff talked directly to me and talked directly to my painful, long journeys into difficult bits of history. There’s a kind of energy that I felt some kind of kinship with.
SB: What’s interesting here to me is, of course, you are a voracious researcher—and reader—but also you travel. You go to experience these places. Could you speak to that element?
EDW: Yeah, I mean, come on. Don’t you hate it when you pick up another bloody book and you think, “This is just Google. They just phoned in this effing book.” You have to go, and be, and walk and count steps of staircases, and feel the warmth or the coldness of a banister rail. And you have to go into archives and call up those papers and records and keep going until you find what’s there and what isn’t there. You just have to do the work. You have to do the work. Otherwise, you’re skating this thin existence.
When I went to Jaipur to see this great observatory that Noguchi had photographed—had been on pilgrimage to see—and I went on pilgrimage to see it and to see what Noguchi had seen. And then, this blazing sun, seeing how the shadows move. It’s so profoundly generative of ideas. Things change. Things shift when you actually go to places. Suddenly my relationship with Noguchi just shifts a little bit on its axis, having been there. But going into the archives in…. Oh, God help me. Vienna and Berlin and Theresienstadt and all these difficult places, they also shift the ground on which you stand. I think you have a choice: Go or don’t go. But I think ultimately it makes a difference.
SB: These two Gagosian shows are your first New York gallery exhibitions in a decade, though of course, you’ve had, as you mentioned, this Frick exhibition/intervention, called “Elective Affinities,” and you also had “The Hare with Amber Eyes” exhibition at the Jewish Museum here in 2021. But how do you think about this particular period of time, these ten years, and your life and work since that first Gagosian exhibition here in 2013?
EDW: I’m a husk of the man that I was ten years ago. I’m gray, old, full of years. [Laughter] No, I mean, what a decade for me. The reality is, of course, that it’s been an extraordinary family decade with my partner and my kids. They are now out in the world, so it’s a decade of great change in my life.
But there have been books. I’ve made a library of exile that began in Venice for the Biennale. I’ve worked in complicated spaces, Spencer. So in these last ten years, I’ve done exhibitions, interventions in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, an exhibition called “During the Night,” which was an exhibition about anxiety. An exhibition that looked at that institution and its power and connection to the Holocaust, but in a tangential way, looking at its collections, looking at shadows, looking at anxiety. I’ve worked in the ghetto in Venice, thinking about the life of that particular place. I’ve done things in really complicated institutional spaces. Most recently, at the Musée Camondo, where a house which has been untouched and where the will of Moïse de Camondo says nothing must be moved, nothing must be changed. So I make work which sits very lightly in the house, sits in the attics and in the archives and in the forgotten spaces.
I guess this is a long-winded way of answering your question. I feel I’ve grown into this practice I’ve got, which is a practice about memory, really. I’m making things. I’m making texts, and I’m putting them down in the world and seeing if they have any weight to them at all. I don’t know what happens next.
SB: You’ve also curated an exhibition that’s about to open of the Danish ceramicist Axel Salto at the CLAY Museum of Ceramic Art, Denmark. Tell me about this presentation, about your relationship with Salto’s work and what it’s been like for you to work on that project.
EDW: Salto is extraordinary. He should be universally known, loved, admired, respected, and he isn’t—yet.
SB: This is where I admit I had never heard of him.
EDW: Yeah, you should have, and now you do. So, he’s midcentury Danish poet, editor, illustrator, graphic artist, educator, and ceramicist. And he, haunted by Ovid, by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this wonderful text about change and transformation, which he completely understands as being the principle, foundational image about how pots happen. You make something and it will be changed. It will be transformed in the heat and fire of the kiln. So he turns this image of the fire of the kiln and connects it to Ovid—of his Metamorphoses—and he produces this amazing body of work.
He’s the only potter I know who talks about anxiety and pots. He says, “Actually, do you know my pots are supposed to be provocative? They’re supposed to make you feel worried.” I mean, wow. And so, I had this chance to work with an extraordinary museum and an extraordinary collection of these objects, and I put this on and I’ve made a new installation. But this exhibition begins in Denmark. It then goes to a remarkable new museum in Norway [Kunstsilo] and ends up in the U.K. [at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire] And there’s a beautiful book which brings together his writings for the first time in English, which also gets published next week with a big text by me on why I love this wonderful artist.
SB: Let’s go back to your upbringing in Nottingham and Lincoln, in England. Your father was a chaplain, and later a cathedral chancellor, and your mother was a lecturer in history. You grew up next to cathedrals, which are some of your earliest memories, from what I understand. Could you speak to the atmosphere of your upbringing around these spaces, and also how these spaces have had a long-term impact on you?
EDW: In long retrospect, of course, it’s extraordinary to think of a childhood growing up in an unheated medieval house with spiral staircases and box rooms and a chapel.
SB: I read that it was dating back to 1316.
EDW: Yes. With a crypt. I mean, for goodness’ sake. [Laughter] And a garden, which was wild, where my three brothers and I did our own archeological dig in the summers, digging up medieval stuff in that garden. But in the shadow of, first of all, Lincoln Cathedral, an unbelievably beautiful, austere gothic cathedral. It was so cold and empty that you sometimes felt that there was fog actually in the cathedral. But what a place, to hear the services, week in, week out. My father was chancellor, which meant he was responsible for the library, so we grew up being allowed to go into the library and look at medieval manuscripts.
But those spaces are beautiful, lambent, sacred spaces—filled with silence, filled with sound. That was the beginning, and then we moved to an even bigger house in Canterbury when he became dean of Canterbury. And there, there was a key to the cathedral so you could just, as a child, go in at night just by yourself, into the cathedral, lie on a medieval floor looking up into the medieval gothic roof, just the light from outside coming through the stained-glass windows. What does it do?
It sets a pretty high benchmark in terms of understanding what a sacred space means, which is one thing. Also, it’s a wellspring, to be honest, because that’s the architecture, but the reality of our family life is that, throughout childhood, there was an open door. We never knew who was going to be there at lunch, and it was a succession of writers and actors and people from different faiths and academics coming through. A wonderful monk came for a couple of weeks, and he stayed four years as a hermit in one of the towers of the house. It was kind of an odd upbringing.
SB: [Laughs] Well, there’s something so magical or alchemical even about the sounds of this, and I know as a student at King’s School, you found a mentor in the potter Geoffrey Whiting, who instilled in you this notion of pottery as a calling. Tell me a bit about him, your time with him.
EDW: I owe so much to him. He was a wonderful man. He was very austere. He lived incredibly simply, and it was vocational for him. He was also extremely good on discipline, so he had this sense which he passed on. He said, “The first twenty thousand pots you make are the worst,” to me, in my apprenticeship, “and it gets easier after that.” So working with him, it was instilling the rhythm of repetition through making functional pots. So, it was, “Make forty soup bowls, make another forty soup bowls, make eighty honeypots”—this is the seventies and eighties.
SB: It sounds like a drummer learning rudiments or something.
EDW: Of course, it’s completely basic. Visual artists, I’m slightly surprised by that sense, but actually any musician…. It’s scales and arpeggios. It’s the understanding that any art has to become somatically forgotten in your body—that you can just rely on your deep tacit knowledge. And, that’s the beginning. And so, Geoffrey made a particular kind of work, and I was very, very much in that world for a long time, that particular discipline—and I’ve moved away from it, but I will always respect that training. I was profoundly lucky to spend those years. I started when I was 12 with him, going every afternoon. At 17, I left school, went to Japan, came back, did a two-year apprenticeship with him, so it was many, many, many hours sitting next to him, him on his wheel, me on mine, and me just failing to make one pot after another.
SB: There’s another important figure I wanted to bring up here, Dr. Sen no Sōshitsu, a tea ceremony master and fifteenth-generation head of the Urasenke School of Tea, in Kyoto. You had an auspicious meeting with him around I think age 17.
EDW: Yes. Yes. [Laughs]
SB: What did he tell you exactly? And maybe share a bit about the importance of meeting him.
EDW: He was extraordinary. Most people might think, if they think about Japanese tea masters, think about someone who’s so hierarchically removed from the world. They’d be absolutely terrifying. And then this wonderful man, this extraordinary, charismatic man, he’d come to England…. There was “The Great Japan Exhibition” at the Royal Academy, the very first huge international exhibition of Japanese art. And he’d come to do a tea ceremony in Britain. He came to Canterbury on pilgrimage, like so many people came, and then there he was. And I met him. He’d done a tea ceremony in the cathedral, and I said, “I’m a potter.” And he said, “Well, that’s all very well and good, but you haven’t been to Kyoto. You haven’t made tea. Come to Japan.”
He invited me to go to Japan. So I left school and went to Japan. And you know what? That’s pretty lucky. I’ve got a lovely photograph of him. I’m 17 and gauche, and wearing a corduroy jacket and looking incredibly embarrassed. And he’s quite a lot smaller than me, and he’s gesturing a great gesture going, “You’re too tall. You’re going to bump your head. Duck! Come to Japan, but duck!” [Laughter] And, it’s a lovely picture, which takes me back to that encounter. It was just tremendous.
He’s still alive.
SB: He must be…. 100?
EDW: He’s 100.
So tell me about your journey—or journeys, I should say—to Japan. I know in 1982 you made this first journey, and later, in 1990, you returned. How do you think about your relationship to Japan? In the early years, you described it as “a deep, congested infatuation with the country.” [Laughs]
SB: How has your relationship to Japan grown, evolved, changed, shifted, mutated?
EDW: I think “congested” in relation is pretty much an adolescent yearning to be there, to sit in a Zen rock garden forever, to only drink tea. So, all that stuff, and also to make mingei pots. That was my calling. I had to make the folkcraft. So going back was an extraordinary thing because there I was in Tokyo for a year and two things happened. Three things happened. One was that I was spending my time researching a book on Yanagi Sōetsu, the great theoretician of the folkcraft movement, in another bloody archive, and his relationship with Bernard Leach, the godfather of studio ceramics, which ended up as a rather good, small, cross book about Bernard Leach, trying to give a bit more criticality to him. So that was happening
But I was also using porcelain for the first time in Tokyo. So, not brown stoneware clays, but was beginning to explore porcelain, so it was play—coming back to the Noguchi thing. I was playing with clay for the first time. For decades. I’d been very serious, for a long time. And the third thing that happened in Japan was that I spent a huge amount of time with my very beloved great uncle, Iggie von Ephrussi, who was then in his eighties, who had had this extraordinary life of exile from one place after another. From Vienna, to America, to finally finding a home in Japan. I used to spend a lot of time with him just at a point in his life when he was reminiscing about life at the turn of the last century. An extraordinary time to be with him, hearing about, really, a completely lost Jewish Viennese life.
SB: It’s hard to imagine The Hare with Amber Eyes ever existing were it not for Iggie.
EDW: Well, it wouldn’t have existed.
EDW: It wouldn’t have existed. So there I was in his sitting room drinking extremely good white wine with him, listening to his stories about seeing dancing bears with Romani traveling travelers on their Czechoslovakian estate before the first World War. Seeing the emperor, Franz Joseph, in his carriage stopping in front of their house on the Ringstrasse to wave to his very gorgeous mother from the balcony. The Anschluss, growing up as a gay young man in Vienna and escaping to become a fashion designer in New York, the worst fashion designer on the East Coast.
EDW: And then, falling in love and going back to Japan. This collection of netsuke, family collection, which he brings to Japan. He builds this great, beautiful house with a vitrine of netsuke at the heart of it. His life with Jiro, my beloved Japanese uncle. They were together for forty years. Music. Art. And then all these non-elegiac, non-sentimental, powerful stories of his life.
And then, when he dies and I go back to Japan, I’m with Jiro and we bury Iggie in a very, very beautiful Buddhist temple, a Buddhist abbot says his prayers, and I say the Kaddish for him in a Buddhist temple. It’s an extraordinary thing to have been in his life at that moment. And then, Jiro and I go back to the empty apartment, and Jiro opens this letter to say that I’ve inherited the netsuke collection, the fifth generation. 1870. There I am, in Tokyo, having inherited it.
SB: I feel like it’s impossible to have a conversation or interview with you without bringing up The Hare with Amber Eyes. So much has been written about, spoken about, so I don’t want to go too deep into it but I was thinking—and I love how you phrase this in the book, you’re like, “How can I explain this idiotic quest?” You spent seven years researching and writing this book, not to say anything about all the time you spent with Iggie prior to even conceiving it. I wanted to ask how do you think about those seven years and what did writing The Hare with Amber Eyes teach you about time?
EDW: One of the strangest things about inhabiting that journey, and the story of my family that I trace—Tokyo, Vienna, Paris, Odessa, London—is the sense of proximity of the dead. For me, the fact that my great-grandfather Victor, born in Odessa in 1860, grows up in a newly built house on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, whose wife commits suicide in 1938 as the Nazis approach—he finally gets to London as an old man by himself in 1939, and he dies in exile in 1945, quoting to my father bits of Virgil that he had learned as a young…. Is that far away? Is there any sense of distance in time for that extraordinary trajectory of life? For me, no. Absolutely not. I go to Odessa and I walk through the different places of that, and Vienna and Czechoslovakia, and back into exile.
And so about time, the writing and the researching took a good Biblical seven years. But that proximity of someone’s life, of witnessing through the scraps that I know—the objects, the moments, the places, the what’s left aspect of one person’s life—means that time contracts and contracts and contracts and contracts so that I can see him. I can see him at his desk in Vienna. I can see him in his library. I can hear the sounds of that house on a Tuesday morning. And of course I can’t, but actually, I can. [Laughter] So, time….
Bear with me. Because it’s the same thing for me as when I pick up a Song dynasty pot or something. You feel the pulse of the making of that object, and time actually does a very strange, strange thing. So these things are very close to each other. There are strong overlaps about those journeys to be near people and those journeys by picking up objects and beginning to try and understand to tell their stories, and time’s absolutely at the heart of that.
SB: As you were saying this, I was just thinking back to what you were saying earlier in this conversation, describing Noguchi in Kamakura.
EDW: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t that image of him at that moment in his life scraping the clay on the wall and then placing, very deliberately, this ancient Japanese sculptural head into the wall as a sort of touchstone for his practice? It’s returning to earth, it’s returning to place, it’s returning to people and finding presence.
SB: You’ve written two more books, The White Road and Letters to Camondo. In Letters, which came out in 2021, you go deeper into your relationship with the rue de Monceau in Paris, which is where Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of your great-grandfather, bought a house in the 1870s. In the book you write, “I’m a little embarrassed by how much time I’ve spent on the rue de Monceau, how many days I’ve spent reading about it, haunting it.” You’ve called it “a street of conversations, a street of beginnings.” Tell me about this twenty-plus-year affair with the rue de Monceau and what you’ve learned by spending so much time on one street.
EDW: [Laughs] Well, I think way back actually in The Hare with Amber Eyes, I say that you need to spend a lot of time watching a house to be able to understand it, which sounds really perverted and bonkers, and just like, “Why is this middle-aged white Englishman sitting out on the street and watching a French house? What’s he doing? Move him on, for God’s sake. Arrest him.” [Laughter] But you know what? There’s a truth about spending a lot of time with something. It could be clay, but it can be a street. And what’s so strange about this street, why I’ve spent so much time in it is that it is a street of beginnings. It’s a street that’s created by newly arrived families who have decided that France, Paris, is going to be their home. This is where they’re going to bring up their families. They’re going to become French—even more importantly, Parisian. Probably Parisian rather than French, actually.
And so, they build houses which have a certain swagger and panache and occupy a certain amount of space to say that they are not wandering Jews anymore—it’s a street of Jewish families—that they’ve arrived and they’re staying put. And then you can trace who marries who, which synagogues they go to, whether they meet at the Bourse or at the opera, or who has illegitimate children with whom, or whatever, or who, in the case of the Ephrussis and the Camondos, who’s buying which Manet on which day, and in the park, Parc Monceau. So, it becomes this street of connections, but it also becomes…. and that’s all wonderful and glorious and it’s like a movie, a very sepia movie but a glorious movie.
And this is why I need to write my Letters to Camondo. The same street in 1940 becomes a street where all these long, deep relationships with Paris, these families are fractured, one by one by one. The requisitioning of houses, the deportation of families. This becomes the headquarters of the paramilitary Milice. This becomes the house which is requisitioned for this particular functionary. This is where this happens to this family, this happens to that family. This is where the Rosenbergs are, and then the Camondo cousins are arrested. Jauncey, the concentration camp guarded, as you know, by French policemen, and then the trains to Auschwitz.
So this beautiful hill of golden houses, which is a hill of aspiration—it’s a place of the projecting of possibility deep into the future—becomes a place of fracture. And the effing French: You can walk up and down that street and you do not know what happened. There are no stumble stones like there are in Berlin or Dresden or anywhere else. You have no sense that this is a street of deportations. At all. And so, twenty years, yes, but over twenty years, it deepens, and some things come to the front of my life, Spencer, and Letters to Camondo is full of anger.
SB: I found it interesting, prior to this interview, I reread The Hare with Amber Eyes, and seeing the moments where you mention the Camondo family, it’s almost a foreshadowing of this other book to come. Do you think about it that way? It seems like there’s a lot of threads within The Hare with Amber Eyes that could become other books.
EDW: God help me, I don’t know where those threads are. You’re probably right. I haven’t ever reread The Hare with Amber Eyes. I don’t reread what I’ve written. Perhaps I should. I don’t know what’s next. I’m not sure what’s next. I’m demurring a little here. I’m not being dishonest, I’m just demurring because there are some things which have a certain fragility that you don’t necessarily want to share quite yet—but there will be more books.
SB: I’d like to turn this conversation back to pots, and to rhythm and breath, which are, I think, so central to your work and of course to time. How do you think about the roles of rhythm and breath in your practice, your process, and in your installations?
EDW: I think it’s completely my grounding, really, which is that the making of one vessel and then making another vessel, taking it off the wheel, making another one, has an extraordinary element of rhythm within it. But at the heart of the rhythm, of course, is this interior space of a vessel, which is a breath. And so, there’s an embodiment there. It’s almost a breathing into the vessel. I don’t want to sound like God or Prometheus, but, for me, a vessel, it’s a container of breath.
So it’s putting these objects down in the world. Of course, what I’m doing is making different kinds of congeries of rhythms, different kinds of spaces between objects, between breaths, and that’s poetry. That is poetry. It’s pots on a shelf, for God’s sake, Spencer. Of course, it’s pots on a shelf.
EDW: That’s what it is, but for me, that’s also a sounding of the world. It’s a rhythmical sounding of the world. I listen to music all the time, and sometimes it’s Philip Glass or “Tehillim” by Reich. But this last year, and this is very present, actually, in this exhibition here in New York, a lot of Morton Feldman. Morton Feldman is incredible about breath and space within his work. I feel like I’m learning so much by listening to him.
So, I have no idea what you asked me as a question. I completely tangentially derailed your—
SB: No, you didn’t. It was about rhythm and breath, but I think what we’re also talking about—I mean, you mentioned Philip Glass…. Another thing we’re talking about here is repetition. And there is this role of repetition of the making of pots as a repetitive act, and then you play with that repetitive act in your installations.
EDW: Yes. It seems to me that repetition is a way of trying to understand the world. It’s trying to understand singularity by being iterative, by returning to something. That’s a very personal act. And it can be wonderful and propulsive, as in [Steve Reich’s] “Different Trains” or [Glass’s] Einstein on the Beach, where you have these great, almost overwhelming repetitions of phrases and returns to things. It’s great orchestration of repetition. But it can also be Agnes Martin, a single line and then another line. It can be as simple as that, and I’m drawn to that. I’m drawn to that because that’s what I’ve internalized over more than five decades of making things.
SB: Let’s end with another constant of your work: the act of letting go. [Laughter] I feel like it’s an appropriate place to end because it’s hard for me to even let go of this interview. I had so many questions and things I wanted to ask, but you’ve written—and I absolutely love this line—
EDW: Oh, thank God for that. Finally.
SB: “Losing things”—
SB: —“can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.” You’ve also written, “I think you cannot give up your loss, cannot lose loss.” As someone who makes a living from letting things go, how do you come to terms with this dichotomy? What are your philosophies, I suppose, on letting go?
EDW: I’m not nearly grand enough to have a philosophy, Spencer, and it’s so personal, this. The first line comes towards the end of The Hare with Amber Eyes, where I’m talking about my grandmother burning the letters of her mother, a huge, huge stack of letters. And just making a private space where no one can intrude. So a week ago, in London, my father, who is 94, almost 95—lives in a very small apartment—produces a box of letters, a hundred and twenty letters, that I had no idea about, between my grandmother and my grandfather, going all the way back to 1927.
EDW: And another series of letters between my grandmother and her best friend during the war, which talk about what will happen if the Nazis invade and whether they will have to take their own lives.
So, letting go, making a space, yeah, I’m really in favor of it. And then the world turns you on your head and produces something else that you didn’t know, and then you have to deal with it. So, I let the work go into the world. I have to. I have to make a living. My studio can’t be full of pots. I have to make space for the next thing, and that’s wonderful. That’s important. That’s a kind of letting-go.
But the second quote you quoted, putting a finger deeply into my heart here—
SB: I’m sorry, Edmund.
EDW: No, you’re not, you’re bloody good at it, and you know that—is me saying to Moïse de Camondo, whose son has died and he’s trapped in grief, he’s trapped in bereavement. And so, he decides to create this house, this extraordinary house, as a memorial to his son. This house will survive, will be passed on into the future generations, as a memorial. And I understand that: In bereavement, you can’t let go. You return. You return and you return and you return and you return because, actually, even though you’re trying to make something external, which will be independent and externalize your loss, at the heart of it is a return to an emotion that is very difficult to let go.
You’ve written an extraordinary book about memorials [In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials]. This is our conversation over the last few years. And I’m trying to understand that in the books I write and in the work I make, and it’s a process. It will continue, so it’s a very good way of ending because I haven’t a clue about letting go.
SB: Edmund, thank you.
EDW: Thank you so much for this. It’s been much looked forward to, and it’s been even more wonderful.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on September 9, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Tom Jamieson.